Meeting with Multilingual Families in Espoo City’s MONIKU service

In 2017, Espoo City launched MONIKU service, a pilot project to support families with a foreign background, who have children. The service has been developed to increase operational equality, while at the same time switching the emphasis from rehabilitative services to preventive work.

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A month after the start of the project, Espoo City’s MONIKU service collaborated with the Helsinki-based Lukukeskus, to translate the Lue Lapselle materials into six languages, in addition to the Finnish, Swedish and English versions. Soon the number of languages will increase to include 6 more, for a total of 15 languages. The Lue Lapselle materials have been an extremely valuable tool in MONIKU service, which we introduce to the multilingual families during the meeting when the baby is 6 months of age.

MONIKU’s target group

MONIKU service’s target group are families with children who have a language other than Finnish or Swedish. The service focuses on supporting early native language development and the parents’ interaction with their children. MONIKU service workers encourage parents to regularly interact with their children through speaking, reading, and singing to them in their native language. Though a simple practice, there can often be obstacles occurring in the daily life, such as tiredness and stress, preventing this interaction.

The majority of families receiving MONIKU service are families in which one or both parents have moved from their home country to Finland, for love, work, studies, or as refugees. As it is, there can be great stress involved when immigrating to a new country. Those of us who have done so, have to face many tasks, not the least integrating into a new culture and learning a new language. Those coming to Finland as refugees often carry much heavier burdens, such as traumas, even after having landed in a safe country. Many refugees are under constant stress, sometimes for years, waiting for their immigration decisions to be made.

Why is MONIKU needed?

In 2016 in Espoo, a year before MONIKU was launched, 20.3% of children under one year and 18.2% of children under 7 years spoke a native language other than Finnish or Swedish. According to population projections, the number of multilingual children in Espoo is growing all the time. PISA results have shown that the competence of children born to immigrants in schools in Finland was almost two years behind, even though many of them have been involved in early childhood education and have gone through the beginning of basic Finnish education. Additionally, in Espoo, the risk of youth who speak a foreign language ending up outside of working life or education is more than four times higher than in Finnish and Swedish youth (Lehtinen 2018).

Developing good linguistic abilities help to provide opportunities for children to be active participants in their education, and prevent exclusion. For children with a native language other than Finnish or Swedish, the foreign language and cultural environment does not adequately support their native language development. These children need extra support from their parents, and it is important that the parents are also supported and provided with resources, so that they are able to give support to their children.

In Espoo, statistics have shown that families with a foreign background have been overrepresented in rehabilitative services, including those involving children’s urgent placement outside of the home, and at the same time underrepresented in preventive services, such as family work and home services. If we are able to reach and offer preventive service support to families who are under stress earlier, it is likely that there will be less of a need for rehabilitative services. This simply makes sense both from a humane perspective, as well as from an economical one (preventive services are much less costly than rehabilitative and corrective services). To provide an example of this, we can look at one rehabilitative service – speech therapy. According to statistics, in 2016 in Espoo, 29% of children receiving speech therapy were multilingual, and 52% of the children receiving multi-professional support (psychologist and speech therapist) were multilingual. One speech therapy period costs about 1,380e in Espoo. In addition to a number of rehabilitation periods, most of the children require supportive activities in daycare/school, a large part of which also include specialized health care, family work or child welfare services. Three early support meetings with a MONIKU-service worker costs a total of 222e, and the service also influences the siblings’ and parents’ well-being (Lehtinen 2018).

According to MONIKU’s recent statistics, there is a high percentage of fathers in foreign background families who are either studying or unemployed, which raises the risk of poverty and stress in those families. Through appropriate service guidance, we aim to address and to try to alleviate these issues.

Service Guidance

In each MONIKU meeting, we guide families to services, according to their needs. There are many useful services available, public, third-sector and private, but very often families aren’t aware that they exist. It is also important to be sensitive and to recognize that there are immigrants coming from countries where authorities are not always trustworthy, and for some, certain topics, such as mental health issues, are not easily discussed. An important part of MONIKU service is to determine which services may be useful to a family, and also, through conversation, to try to lower the threshold, so that families can feel open to using certain services, such as family work and home services (perhetyö ja kotipalvelut), adult social work (aikuissosiaalityö), and mental health services (mielenterveyspalvelut).

On the note of preventive work, the focus of MONIKU services on supporting the native language development of children of families with a foreign background can have far-reaching
positive effects. There is more than ample research available to be read on attachment theory and the importance of early interaction for a child’s development. When a child’s native language system is well-developed, it makes it easier to build other languages on that system. This means that a child who speaks their native language well will likely learn Finnish more easily when he goes to daycare. Learning Finnish will help him to make friends with other children, and to do well in school.

The MONIKU meetings

The MONIKU meetings are reserved by the neuvola (maternity and child clinic) nurses. The first part of the first two MONIKU meetings are together with the neuvola nurse, and the MONIKU service worker and the family continue the MONIKU part of the meeting in another room. The third meeting is just for the MONIKU worker and the family.

In the first MONIKU meeting, when the baby is 2 months old, we focus on the importance of the native language and of the parents interacting with their baby by talking and singing, for example. Recently, we received training in Story Massage (satuhieronta), and we now offer information and materials in various languages on this, as well. We discuss with the parents about screen time, provide information on why screen time is not suitable for babies under the age of one year, encourage parents to avoid giving their child screen time before age two, and discuss the suggested limits of screen time for older children.

In the 6 month meeting, we talk about the benefits of reading aloud to children, and we give the Lue Lapselle materials during this meeting, and go through the information together. Some parents come from a country where there is more of a “reading culture”, or it can be more individual – on the family level, some parents experienced as children a rich storytelling culture. Sometimes it was the parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles who were doing the reading or storytelling. Some parents have come to Finland as refugees from war-torn countries, where often there wasn’t even a possibility to attend school. Some parents cannot read because they have never had the opportunity. We try to encourage parents to read or tell stories to their children on a daily basis.

In the 10 month meeting, we follow up on the previous meetings’ discussions about the parent’s interaction with their baby, reading, singing, and reaffirm the importance of avoiding giving the baby screen time. We discuss screen time guidelines for the future, including the importance of the child watching screen time in their native language, or in the language of the daycare or school that the child will be attending. We discuss various ways of supporting the native language when the child starts attending daycare, and during school age.

In MONIKU meetings, we also discuss with the parents about their older children’s language development. We can also meet with families with children who are older, for example, the first meeting may be when the child is 1-6 years old. We guide parents to Finnish courses and other services in support of their education or field of work, and at the end of each meeting, we
compile an email customized with links and information for each family’s specific needs. For example, an email may include links to a booklet and a video about guidance on early interaction, information on open daycares and playgrounds in the area, Finnish courses, information supporting those parents who are in intercultural relationships, and invitations to multicultural family meetings and Finnish language environment family groups.

During meetings, we talk with the parents about the importance of the native language as the emotional language. When parents speak their native language to their child, they create the strongest connection possible with their child, and at the same time helping to build the basis and vocabulary by which their child will know how to express their own feelings. This is an essential part of the child’s development of mental and emotional health.

MONIKU service workers

The MONIKU service workers are University of Applied Sciences Social Services bachelor’s degree graduates. They are also immigrants. This has been shown to be important, as the client and the worker have shared similar experiences (i.e., the immigration process and building a life in a new country). The experience of immigration has provided the worker with the knowledge of the types of services, guidance and assistance the client might need. It also creates a basis of understanding between the worker and the client, which facilitates the building of trust and communication with the client.

The MONIKU service workers conduct their meetings with families in Finnish, English (Espoo’s third official language), and the workers’ other native languages including Spanish, Italian, and Turkish. Interpreters are hired, when needed.

Already in the first two years of operation, results and feedback have been promising, and MONIKU is now an established service, with three MONIKU social counselors working in child and maternity clinics to provide MONIKU service for multilingual families, covering the whole of Espoo. The service is continually developing, with regular assessment to find out how to best meet the needs of multilingual families with personalized care and support.

Michelle Kaila


Lehtinen, Hanna 2018. MONIKU-palvelu PowerPoint esitys.

Pisä-tutkimus 2012.

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